Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner reinvigorated our notion of a leader with his screenplay for Lincoln, a president “clothed in immense power” who also cared deeply about his citizenry. But what does it mean to be a good citizen? Ask Eric Liu, a former Clinton speechwriter and White House advisor who’s rallied some of the nation’s thought leaders, including Kushner, to speak at this year’s Citizen University. The full-day conference (formerly called Guiding Lights) prompts participants to share ideas on motivating change. It's a full day of TED Talk-style speaker sessions and small-table discussions encouraging honest debate from the left and the right.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Liu about artists as citizens, how much we heart Lincoln, and having debates that don't turn into Crossfire matches.
Citizen University is a conference on “the art of great citizenship.” What makes a great citizen?
I don’t use the phrase “the art of great citizenship” casually. First of all, being a great citizen is not science or something you’re born knowing how to do. It’s an art, and it requires practice. It requires us to show up and figure out how we find and express our voice, and amplify that voice. The other half of the “art of great citizenship” is the artists themselves as citizens. Whether you’re talking about Tony Kushner, whose work has shaped a lot of people’s ideas about politics and moral conflict and compromise, or other artists.
To me there’s an important opportunity for more creativity in citizenship—whether you’re talking about a lifelong political activist who’s openminded enough to try new strategies and creative ways of using of technology, or you’re talking about an artist who, up until now, hasn’t been engaged in political issues, but discovers she can bring to bare her style, her identity as an artist onto these political issues. Both of these I think make this moment exciting.
What drew you to Tony Kushner as a keynote speaker?
I love Lincoln. I heart Lincoln. And I’m a student of Lincoln. This film, itself, I was excited about and have been thinking about a lot since it’s been out. And I like Tony Kushner as an artist. Angels in America was one of the most formative things I’ve ever read—I’ve never actually seen it on stage, I’ve seen the HBO film adaptation. What I love about Tony Kushner is his ability to fuse public issues and private stories, and the hard, raw stuff of everyday reality, with a fevered imagination.
When you’re somebody who’s a big Lincoln nerd like me, you really appreciate that the man wasn’t just an analysis machine. He had art, pain. He suffered. He experienced tragedy. He was wired for melancholy. Lincoln embodies this combination of patriotism and a tragic sensibility that I think Kushner embodies and captures in his work. That’s why a lot of what we try to do at the conference isn’t jingoism. Our country, warts and all, is what we’ve got, so let’s figure out for all of its tragic flaws how we can show up and make it just a little better.
Are there projects or collaborations that came out of these weekends that have inspired you personally?
Oh gosh, yes. This weekend you’ll see Joan Blades and Mark Meckler in conversation. Joan is the cofounder of MoveOn.org and Mark is the cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots. Left and right. Mark was at our conference last year and we became friends. Even though my politics and his are very different, we became similarly interested in creating opportunities for people to have crosspartisan, honest conversations.
One of the things that’s come out of all this work is that Joan started a new initiative called Living Room Conversations that she and Mark modeled. They each invited a friend for coffee and talked about issues they agreed upon and disagreed upon. The point wasn’t to come out with “kumbaya” consensus, but to learn how to disagree in a more constructive way, and to search out some aspects of humanity or principle where it turns out you might actually agree.
Has Seattle made it easier to do projects like this? Has the city influenced your work?
You hit something I hadn’t thought about. I think Seattle has absolutely made it possible to do these projects. I’ve always had this stirring inside me when I worked in the other Washington in the Clinton White House or on Capitol Hill—the other Capitol Hill—but it’s being in Seattle that gives me the openness of mind and heart, and exposes me to the creativity and the grassroots, bottom-up passion that really has driven the way I try to do these projects. D.C. does things in a very stodgy, official, top-down template. I don’t care whether you’re talking about a congressional hearing or a think tank event or a reception, they all have the same feel. The reason why we’ve kept it here in Seattle, even though we’ve been asked an invited to hold it in D.C. or other places in the country, is because I want all the people we’re bringing out here to experience the special civic side of Seattle. We have this vibe and ethos of participation and voice, and an expectation that if you want to get involved, you can. If you want to have a say in something, you can. Which I can tell you, having grown up on the East Coast and worked in D.C., is not the norm in other places.
Mar 23, Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center, registration closed